On September 25, 1990, Joann Musso discovered a lump in her breast. It’s a day etched forever in her mind. And during her struggle with breast cancer, she chose to keep an unusual kind of diary, with needle and thread instead of pen and ink.
The story of her journey – from diagnosis to treatment, from recovery to cure, from darkness to dawn – now hangs in her closet.
“No one knows the feelings that come flooding in upon hearing the dreaded word ‘cancer’ until you experience it first-hand,” Musso says.
“It was overwhelming. I can still hear the doctor’s words ringing in my ears: Another six months, and we probably would not be able to save your life.”
Musso’s story has been an inspiration for many women whose lives she has touched during a half-century in our neighborhood. Musso’s story tells of hope, courage and survival. It’s a story of the healing power of work, a positive attitude, the love of family – and good medicine.
Young dreams / Musso grew up in the 1940s, and she loved going to the movies.
“It was during this time, the years of World War II, that the movies became so popular,” she says. “Movies kept the country’s morale up during these difficult times. There were up-beat musicals and comedies with cheerful story lines. The movie stars were glamorous and so were the costumes.”
Like many young girls, Musso dreamed of “The Big Time.” Many of her friends fantasized about becoming actresses. But not Musso. She longed to design and make clothes, and she learned to sew at an early age.
“My mother and grandmother had the patience to teach me, and I loved it. Like most little girls, I loved to play dress up, and I became quite creative in making costumes for myself and the neighborhood children who wanted to play.
“As a typical teenager, I developed an insatiable desire for clothes, which motivated me to strive to improve my sewing skills. I was beginning to find my own style.”
In 1951, Musso married her husband, Nick, and they made their home in the Lake Highlands. As a young wife and mother, sewing enabled her to work at home, doing something she loved and contributing to the family income.
At first, she “took in sewing.” But with experience, she became a skilled seamstress, with clients ranging from blushing brides to the “ladies who lunch.”
“I have worked on every conceivable type of garment, costume, wedding gown and ball gown,” Musso says. During the ’80s, she was hired to do alterations on some of the costumes for the legendary television show “Dallas.”
Her childhood dreams were beginning to come true.
“In 1990, a friend urged me to enter the International Quilt Festival in Houston. A few years earlier, I had begun to make one-of-a-kind jackets for gallery sales and competitions.
“I had made a black crepe jacket, embellished with black lace and beads that had belonged to my grandmother, mother and mother-in-law. I named it ‘Deco-Echo, Voices from the Past,’ a tribute to three wonderful women in my life who had inspired me.”
So, in late August, Musso made reservations to enter the show. Life seemed so good. She was doing what she loved most. And then, it all came to a screeching halt.
Darkness all around / Four weeks after making reservations for the Houston show, Musso found a problem – a serious one.
“Two days after discovering my lump, I had a lumpectomy and was told it was malignant,” she says.
Musso couldn’t believe what was happening. And it was all happening so quickly. A lymphectomy was performed the next week to see if it had spread. The surgery brought good news.
“My doctor had found clear margins around the lump, so the probability of it spreading seemed slim,” Musso says.
“Consequently, my doctor didn’t think I needed to have a mastectomy. I would probably only need radiation treatments.
“Life would go on as planned.”
During Musso’s weekly visits to the doctor, she told him of her trip to Houston at the end of October. He said she could go if she was up to par physically.
“So, I worked very hard to exercise many times a day,” Musso says. “It was the most painful experience I had encountered this side of childbirth.”
The awakening / Finally, Musso was released by her doctor and left to participate in the Quilt Festival the very next day. When she arrived at the Houston show, she discovered an experience that transcended her wildest dreams and gave her career a whole new dimension.
She modeled the black jacket that was so special to her. And she became hooked on the world of Wearable Art.
“All the exhibits, workshops and vendors opened my eyes to a new creative path for me. I had been a professional seamstress for years, doing custom design and couture alterations,” Musso says. “This was different. I absolutely loved being part of this newly-found world.”
While in Houston, Musso learned that the ultimate show in the Wearable Art Industry is the Fairfield Fashion Show, which is “by invitation only.”
“To be invited to design a piece for this show gave me a new goal in life,” she says.
Musso decided this would be her avenue for creating the “movie star garments” she had dreamed of as a child, and she began new designing projects as soon as she returned home.
Recurring nightmare / The news that awaited her when she returned was unexpected, to put it mildly. On a follow-up visit with her doctor, she discovered her fight had only begun. Her cancer turned out to be aggressive – and extremely fast-growing.
And so it was that in late November, when many people were enjoying Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday season, Musso was beginning chemotherapy.
The treatments made her sick. There were times when she lacked the strength to get out of bed. Too weak and mentally exhausted to continue her work, Musso was determined not to give up her dreams. She used the time to unlock her imagination, and she mentally created the designs and planned out the details of garments she would fashion once she felt better.
Like everyone who has gone through this struggle, she had her good days and bad days. But Musso was positive because she knew how fortunate she was that the cancer was treatable.
Even during her worst days, the motivation she felt upon returning from the show in Houston never left her. Her imagination was her refuge as she lay in bed recovering.
Dawn of new dreams / “It was during this time that I began to design a new coat. It would be black and white, and I decided it would be called, ‘Chemotherapy Therapy.’”
In all, she designed four coats, each one representing a different phase of her struggle to survive breast cancer. “Chemotherapy Therapy” is made out of white faille with black and white silk patchwork, passementerie braid, and finished in striped cord. She entered this coat the very next year in the International Quilt Festival competition, which was exactly one year after her breast cancer diagnosis. Not only did she win a blue ribbon, but she also received a standing ovation during the awards ceremony. Her story was a symbol of hope for all who fear the disease.
“’Joy’ is a coat that celebrates the completion of my treatment,” Musso says. The coat is made of black faille with bright China silk appliqued flowers, gold beads and embroidered with a gold blanket stitch.”
“Joy” was made about the time her hair began to grow back after chemotherapy, and Musso says it represented exactly how she felt at that time. And finally, “In the Pink” is the coat that was made after she celebrated her fifth year cancer-free.
In 1995 she returned to the International Quilt Festival, this time with a coat that symbolized her cure. “In the Pink” was the jacket that also gained her recognition for the Fairfield Fashion Show, her ultimate dream.
In 1996 and 1997, Musso was invited to join the ranks of elite designers participating in this prestigious show, which travels throughout the world. Besides “In the Pink,” she was recognized in 1997 for a beautiful brown satin coat, “Hearts Desire,” which was purchased by a Japanese movie star.
In her 10 years as a Wearable Art designer, the list of awards and fashion shows Musso has participated in is extensive. Most recently, she was invited to the Republic of Turkey by the Minister of Culture to be part of an international group of women participating in the “Peace with Quilts” fashion show. A major event for Turkey, the event was an effort to revitalize this dying craft there.
A day in the sun / Musso will be participating in the 2000 Fairfield Fashion Show. She doesn’t walk to talk about her design for this show: It’s a secret at this point. But more than any of the awards and honors, Musso says beating cancer is her biggest accomplishment.
“I have just celebated my 10-year anniversary since I was first diagnosed,” she says. “I have had an incredible 10 years filled with unbelievable opportunities to do things I never imagined. I am one of the fortunate ones, only because my cancer was found early enough to save my life.”
To other women, her message is loud and clear: “Don’t even think of forgetting your monthly self-examinations or getting mammograms regularly,” Musso says.
“The rest of your life might just depend on it.”